Review: Admiring La Stupenda ⭐⭐

Dance, physical theatre and circus

Admiring La Stupenda

Greenside@Nicolson Square, v209

15:00 (ends 17 August, not 11)

⭐⭐ (2 stars)

Oh goodness me this show was the encapsulation of what can be most dreadful about Fringe shows – self-indulgent posturing, purporting to be about one subject while allowing the protagonist to inflict their memories and traumas on the unsuspecting public: and yet, curate’s egg-like, there were some good bits …

Dr Daniel Somerville, who according to his flyer is a senior lecturer in the department of drama and performance at the University of Worcester’s school of arts, begins his not-a-lecture-at-all by telling us of Joan Sutherland’s first momentous appearance at Covent Garden in Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor in 1959 and, as they say, a star was born… He read some of the rave reviews of her performance which talked about her unsurpassable mastery of the coloratura role and vocalisation of the role’s complex emotions.

He then read the sole review of his first and only appearance in a piece he had choreographed for three dancers to the music of the mad scene from Lucia, which likened him to “a blood-stained duck”, and proceeded to demonstrate this for us, reminding me irrepressibly of my gym class attempts to balance on one leg and move the other in the air. Dr Somerville had made a study of Japanese buto dancing, of which I am totally ignorant – were I more enlightened, this performance and the ones that followed might have moved rather than confused me.

He told us he had studied singers and their movements – but his comments sounded to me like a person who had only watched the singers of the Russian National Opera Company semaphoring their way through the only three gestures they knew: certainly my experience of current opera is that the singers are, in the main, extremely capable and expressive actors. We digressed into the subject of ‘opera queens’ and the happy hunting grounds of opera houses [apparently Massenet brings out the kinky ones] and then wandered into some not-so-subtle comments [greatly appreciated by some young gay men in the audience] about how individual singer’s voices penetrate one but duettists first penetrate each other and then the listener…there were other remarks of this nature, couple with ones about modern dance which passed over my head…

We heard of his first encounter with the singer who became known as La Stupenda – listening to Lucia on a cassette in his Walkman, and his second encounter at an opera queen’s party when his host, learning that he’d only heard her singing the solo casta diva from Bellini’s Norma, stopped the party so that everyone could listen to, and be transported by, the stunning duet with Marilyn Horne.

And then somehow we got on to the subject of his mother – an amazing woman, from what he said about her, but the connections with opera and Joan Sutherland were tenuous in the extreme: several times he apologised for wandering from the point- yet this was obviously all carefully written and choreographed to fit with the climaxes of the operatic extracts we were hearing. Add in to this strange mix the wrapping of himself in various bits of bedding from those which initially formed a bed on the stage floor, in which he ‘acted’ some of the extracts while commenting on the diva’s limited range of movements and her inimitable ability to fall gracefully to the floor after the climax of any vocal line [in one demonstration some half-a-dozen times].

The operatic extracts were a delight and there was one glorious moment during the extract from Puccini’s Turandot, a role Sutherland recorded but never performed on stage, when Luciano Pavarotti’s voice joined hers and, to my ears, wiped the floor with her – but these moments were all too rare.

The piece didn’t quite seem to know if it was meant to be a serious account of Dr Somerville’s “relationship” with an astounding opera singer, a comedy show, a demonstration of his extraordinary ways of moving on stage which might have impressed some people but didn’t do it for me, or an exhumation of his relationship with his mother. Towards the end of the piece he slipped in a passing remark about her suffering from crippling anxiety, which seems to have been untreated and then, while we heard Ms Sutherland’s farewell performance of Home, Sweet Home during Covent Garden’s 1990 Die Fledermaus he spent the entire time writhing about on the floor in an embarrassingly awkward representation of someone with severe mental problems. Somehow I missed the point.

Other people may have made more sense of the piece, or enjoyed it more. I have to say I was glad when it ended.

Mary Woodward